Overqualified but Uneducated

My father-in-law is a very smart dude. He was a chemical engineer before going back to medical school and becoming an ophthalmologist. He is ambidextrous and performs microsurgeries on the right eye with his right hand and on the left eye with his left hand. He is also widely read and would do very well on Jeopardy. In a conversation with him several years ago, I made an off-hand comment about him being an “educated” person. He quickly corrected me: “I’m not educated; I’m trained. I wish I were educated.”

What he was saying is that he had been equipped with the focused, technical knowledge required for his chosen careers but not necessarily imbued with the broad, general knowledge that is fundamental to the examined life.

The difference between training and education is not as simple as the contrast between a tin-roofed vocational school and a tree-lined liberal arts college. Training is about answers, about how to do it, and education is about questions, about why to do it. Either mentality can prevail in any learning environment, because the distinction is one of epistemology and teleology—of a theory of knowledge and the point of it all—rather than one of pedagogy and praxis—of a theory of teaching and its application.

It seems to me that the American educational system, top to bottom, has become obsessed with training and has almost completely discarded educating. But this was not always the case.

Enlightened public opinion was a cornerstone of the early American republic. Our political system was originally designed to ensure that only members of the “enlightened” or educated public (i.e., attorneys and landed gentry) were able to engage in civic life. The founders were generally frightened of true democracy, because the demos, the people, were, in their estimation, an unruly bunch of ignorant rabble prone to binge drinking and mob violence. (I’m not exaggerating. They really thought that.) The American system of public education was designed in the nineteenth century to support the political movement away from the elite republicanism of John Adams and toward the broad-based democracy of Andrew Jackson. As the public sphere expanded, so too did the notion of public education. In order for American public opinion to remain enlightened, the opinionated public needed some work. The uneducated masses needed to become the somewhat-educated masses. Public education aimed to raise the lowest common denominator of society and to inculcate basic civic knowledge in an expanded electorate.

Throughout much of American history, public education existed to support civic life. You can see in the correspondence between the minimum voting age and the average age at high school graduation the idea that basic education is a prerequisite for exercising civic duties. But in order for all Americans to exercise their civic duties, the government had to protect the civil right of access to public education. In fact, the federal government’s direct involvement in public education is rooted in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The federal government is required to protect access to education as a civil right. Today, the lion’s share of federal funding for education is earmarked for disabled and disadvantaged students.1 At the K-12 level, that funding is IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Title I (economically disadvantaged or at-risk populations). At the higher education level, the Pell Grant program (low-income student aid) is the largest subcategory of federal funding.2

From civic life to civil rights, education is essential to the function of American politics. But in recent years that original purpose of our education system has become a distant and esoteric-sounding concern. Ask any parent paying a hundred-thousand dollars (or more) in college tuition, room, and board: “Did you send your child to college to get a better job or to become a better citizen?” Their response: “Are you joking? She can become a better citizen on her own dime.” It would seem that the humanities or liberal arts are no longer a viable major for anyone besides a bleeding heart or a trust fund baby. In a bygone era, a graduating student could make the case to a corporate recruiter that his or her art history major was a general indicator of intellectual curiosity and aptitude. But just as corporations have outsourced research and development functions to universities, so too have they outsourced a significant portion of job training. “College and Career-Ready” is the educational mantra of our times.

Besides the pragmatic, microeconomic rationale for this turn away from education to training, there is the macroeconomic angle. If education is a strategic weapon in the global economic arms race, then we should all be disturbed by American students’ lackluster performance on global benchmark tests. Economists view us in the aggregate through the lens of labor statistics and consumption trends. Politicians should, one might assume, view us through a political lens as constituents or citizens, but they more often view us through an economic lens as demographics, donors, or jobs. Business executives argue that we need a stronger emphasis on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to ensure that our domestic workforce is prepared to fill jobs in the technology sector. From all of these perspectives, Americans need more training, not more education.

One effect of this training mentality is the standardization of American education. From an economic perspective, the system is chock-full of inefficiencies and uneven outcomes. Moreover, the decentralized, hyper-local labyrinth of educational governance has a systemic tendency toward poor leadership. In communities across America, geographically-redundant school districts are too often led by petty-prince mayors or amateurish school boards overmatched by achievement gaps, budget shortfalls, and flagging global competitiveness. To circumvent this cat-herding, federal initiatives like Race to the Top and multi-state initiatives like Common Core State Standards wield tremendous sway over local district decisions by controlling the funding spigot. But even these mostly-admirable programs suffer from a certain presumptive bias, judging educational innovation within a businesslike matrix of pay-for-performance, technology deployment, and turnaround-or-shutdown, and making wholesale declarations of what students must know to be prepared for college and the workforce.

While there is bipartisan consensus about topics like achievement, accountability, and assessment, I can’t escape the feeling that our leaders—federal, state, and local—somehow don’t get it. I watch Education Secretary Arne Duncan on The Daily Show and feel like he’s wandering in a land of wonkish eduspeak. It’s not just Secretary Duncan, either; I attend a lot of education conferences, and I hear this lilt of groupthink more often than not.

If I can boil down to its essence my concern over the education reform zeitgeist, it is the fallacy that educational success is judged by the mastery of particular skills and content. While this premise may be true at the elementary level, it becomes less true with each successive grade. All of the talk about assessments and learning standards makes this implicit assumption, that the quality of education is measured in the quantity of learning boxes checked. But I don’t buy it. Whether I forgot or never learned the value of pi to five decimal places, I can find it in 3.14159 seconds on Google. Facts and information are now more accessible than ever. Finding answers is simple. What is hard is asking questions and discerning source credibility, two things we Americans are abysmal at. We are, as the saying goes, drowning in information while starving for knowledge.

There are, to be sure, certain facts that every student needs to know to function in and contribute to society. Think about all that you learned in school and what you use on a daily basis. For most of us, if we graduated from high school with solid reading and writing skills, a clear understanding of math through basic algebra and geometry, fundamental knowledge of science and social studies, and decent problem-solving and critical thinking skills, we’d be all set. But we are tested over piles of details and facts that we are destined to forget. Outside of specialized professions, who among us utilizes our familiarity with the quadratic formula, the date of the Battle of Antietam, the maximum valence of Zinc, or Steinbeck’s use of intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath?

I have my own bias here. I believe that most real learning happens outside of the classroom and after graduation. The role of school is to equip students with the tools necessary to access and to generate knowledge throughout their lives.

School is practice. It’s mental calisthenics. The exercises and experiences are designed for connecting neural pathways and for opening new horizons. We learn algebra to understand how to solve problems, not because we must know that x=6. Kids play youth soccer for health and camaraderie, not because they are preparing to be Lionel Messi or Pelé. When parents or coaches focus on the score of the game or scold a seven-year old for an errant pass, it is the adults who are missing the goal. What is true on the field is also true in the classroom.

If my kids graduate from high school, do their best, and love to learn, I will consider their K-12 education a success. If they all ace their college entrance exams but lack sustained intellectual curiosity, I will consider their K-12 experience a failure.

If they go to college, I won’t measure their success purely in terms of GPAs, honors stoles, or marketable skills. I want them to wrestle with big questions and to piece together puzzles of meaning. I want them to learn to read strategically, to mine mountains of information and to smelt out the irrelevant slag in pursuit of the relevant precious metal. I want them to flourish socially and to have a strong sense of self-identity. Yes, I want them to learn a set of skills that will benefit them in their careers, but I don’t want their attainments to become ends in themselves. I want them to become independent men and women who think, believe, and act in a manner befitting an educated person.

  1. Headstart and Ready to Learn Grants are examples of federal funding of educational preparedness for pre-K students from disadvantaged communities.
  2. The cabinet-level US Department of Education as we know is of pretty recent vintage: President Jimmy Carter created the department in 1979. Many Reagan Republicans, including former Secretary of Education, William Bennett, view it as an unconstitutional office.
About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.


  1. Great article, Ben! As an educational psychologist in the making, I can’t agree more with the cattle call that is public education in the States. If and how to change it are the questions that come to mind. 

  2. haleyheathburksNo Gravatar says:

    Very interesting read.  I have to say that I think law schools still do a good job of focusing on the educating of students over the training…..to a fault some say, but I think it’s a great thing.  There’s lots that can be learned on the job, but spending three years learning the thought processes that help in legal analysis are invaluable.  I’m sad to see the undervaluing of liberal arts degrees, but that might be because I have a degree in English literature (that I probably couldn’t have made much use of without law school).

  3. Thank you for a refreshing article! I attempt to challenge prospective students daily to expand thier learning outside the punctiliar “college and career” mindset. It will be interesting to see where the next generation of students lands. I often see students embrace the freedom in a broad philosophy of education while parents appear disconcerted.

  4. My mom once bought me a poster w/ Albert Einstein quotes on it.  I think one of them all the time — “Small is the number of them that see with their own eyes, and feel with their own hearts.”

    I would happily pay 100k for my son to go to a place that “educates,” as you say.  I gave some of the better years of my life to “great” schools, only to realize that most Higher Education institutions are obsessed with grant money, being a top “research U” etc.  They’re so focussed on churning out “research” professors who can increase the prestige and the pocketbook of the university that graduate students who aspire to TEACH are actually the oddballs.

    Now that I have a few years of perspective on this period of my life, I can honestly say that most of the “research” I saw from top “research professors” actually amounted to very little of actual worth to society.

    I hold the great TEACHERS of my past in much much higher esteem, although I wonder sometimes if they could even survive in today’s tenure-track charade.

  5. Renee LeeNo Gravatar says:

    I shared this article with the homeschool group I am a part of, and it was very well received! Your argument is the root of why we chose to leave the school system. Even though we chose to leave the school system, I still find myself questioning if I am doing a disservice to my child because the school kids are coming home with bits and pieces of facts and history that I don’t take the time to teach. Instead, I teach by structuring our days in ways that require our daughter to think, to ask questions, and to explore in an effort to educate and not train. 

    Thanks for writing this, as it re-invigorated me about our the path we chose to educate!